Afghanistan at a crossroads for peace: Is there hope for inclusivity? – Peace News Network

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Kabul, Afghanistan. Image credit: Weaveravel.

Afghanistan’s harsh, mountainous terrain has historically provided a strategic advantage to guerrilla groups, allowing them to hit and run swiftly, inflicting significant damage on ruling powers before vanishing into the mountains. This pattern was employed to great effect by Ahmad Shah Massoud, seen by many as Afghanistan’s national hero. He resisted Soviet invasions in the 1980s and the Taliban in the 1990s from the Panjshir Valley, located in northeastern Afghanistan. 

Today, his son, Ahmad Massoud, continues his legacy, leading the National Resistance Front (NRF). The NRF and other groups made up of former Afghan army members have been conducting guerrilla war against the Taliban since the US withdrawal in August 2021. The NRF vows to fight until an “inclusive and democratic” government, representing all ethnic groups and citizens, is established. However, they have also been open to engaging in dialogue with the Taliban in pursuit of these goals. Despite these, Afghanistan’s recent history indicates that the NRF and other political opponents will struggle to achieve their goals peacefully unless the Taliban are willing to make concessions, which is unlikely given their current position of strength. 

In their last negotiation in Tehran in 2022, Ahmad Massoud proposed a transition period, a constitution, and an election to the Taliban’s foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi. Muttaqi, however, rejected the proposals, deeming them “un-Islamic,” and the talks ended. The Taliban claims their government is “inclusive”, citing a handful of Tajik, Hazara, and Uzbek members within their own ranks.

 However, their acting cabinet lacks a constitution, women, or political parties that embody a large portion of major ethnic groups. They have  explicitly called on exiled opposition to return to Afghanistan and continue ordinary life, a demand that is scarcely welcomed. This stance has been opposed by opposition parties, regional powers such as Iran, Pakistan, China, and Russia, as well as Western countries, all of whom persistently call on the Taliban for an inclusive government for domestic and international legitimacy. 

Afghans inside the country are primarily bearing the brunt of this conflict with a humanitarian crisis affecting the majority of the population, especially women, who have been barred from education and public life for nearly three years. This exclusion has cast a bleak vision over Afghanistan’s future, deepening its isolation on the global stage. 

The Doha Agreement, signed in February 2020 between the United States and the Taliban, aimed to end America’s longest war and pave the way for intra-Afghan dialogue, achieve a comprehensive ceasefire, and establish an inclusive government. But it ended in the U.S.’s chaotic exit and the Taliban’s swift takeover of Kabul. 

The UN has been urging the Taliban to form an “inclusive” government and uphold women’s rights as a way to end its international isolation. The Taliban’s resistance to these demands raises the question of whether the country’s path is leading towards further conflict, or towards a “negative peace” – the absence of violence, but without resolving the underlying issues that fueled past conflicts.  

Monopolizing Power: A risky strategy 

One significant challenge facing the Taliban, according to Graeme Smith, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group (ICG), is a lack of domestic and international legitimacy. Unlike previous Afghan governments (2001-2021), which relied heavily on the international community for military and economic support and aid to sustain, the Taliban operates with limited external support. This gives the international community less leverage and allows the Taliban to reject power-sharing for now—a strategy that could backfire if resistance movements gain momentum. “To some extent, the Taliban are making the same mistake by monopolizing power, but from their perspective, it’s only a mistake if it fails,” he told Peace News Network

To break the deadlock in negotiations, outside powers might rethink their approach to dealing with the “pariah regime” in Kabul. In a recent ICG article, Smith noted that talks with the Taliban at the highest levels will not produce results in the short term and suggested that the international community should adopt a more pragmatic and focused approach in dealing with the Taliban and address specific issues one by one. This includes continuing dialogue on security cooperation and economic stability while insulating these discussions from broader political negotiations about international recognition and human rights issues. 

Even if such efforts gain momentum to open future dialogue, divisions among opposition figures are another obstacle. Many opposition figures who share the same goal of “inclusive government” are scattered abroad, weakening their bargaining powe. Massoud and the NRF have been unsuccessful at bringing together opposition parties and groups as to build a united block that can present a viable alternative to the Taliban. 

A recent meeting on Afghanistan’s future, hosted by the UN, illustrated the barriers to an inclusive peace in the country. Recently, the Taliban participated in a third UN-hosted meeting in Doha, aiming to break the country’s isolation. The meeting, attended by international envoys including regional powers, focused on increasing engagement with the Taliban’s Afghanistan, primarily economic support due to the dire humanitarian situation. Unlike the previous meetings, this time the Afghan civil society and women were excluded, a pre-condition set by the Taliban that faced criticism by civil society and human rights organizations. 

According to Atif Mokhtar, an expert on Afghanistan, “unless Afghans come together into an intra-Afghan dialogue, no other  conference will  bring a positive impact for Afghanistan,” according to Atif Mokhtar. He emphasized that the issues facing Afghanistan must be solved by Afghans themselves, including those who are outside and inside the country. 

While the discussions in Doha marked a shift in the international engagement with Afghanistan, the Taliban’s refusal to include women means that the status quo on the international level is likely to continue. Domestically, Afghanistan’s complex security environment and the Taliban’s rigid opposition to dialogue and inclusivity does little to prevent further internal conflict,  suggesting an uncertain future for Afghanistan. Despite the end of decades of formal war, full peace remains elusive.

Omid Sobhani

Omid Sobhani is an Afghan journalist, currently conducting open source intelligence investigation as a fellow at Afghan Witness. He has previously worked with ABC News Australia, The New Humanitarian, The Washington Post, and local media in Afghanistan.

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